Tractate Chagigah concerns the laws common to all three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. During these festivals, Jews would travel from near and far to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. Appearing in Jerusalem and bringing the appropriate sacrifices in the Temple were considered the primary obligations of the festival, as per the rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 23:15: “none shall appear before Me empty-handed.” According to the sages, the required sacrifices were a burnt offering and two peace offerings (in addition to other festival-specific offerings, like the paschal offering on Passover). Pilgrims might also take the opportunity to bring other sacrifices that were unconnected to the festival, such as the offering that one brings in connection with childbirth or to atone for a specific sin.
After discussing the laws of appearing in Jerusalem and making sacrifices on festivals, there is a famous interlude regarding forbidden esoteric teachings. These two subjects — cosmological speculation about the origins of the universe (ma’aseh bereishit) and theorizing about what God looks like (ma’aseh merkavah) — are considered dangerous. The rabbis recount several stories of what happened to people who entered this forbidden territory, most famously the story of the four rabbis who entered the pardes (literally: orchard, probably a metaphor for looking at God), only one of whom survived the experience intact.
Returning to the subject of pilgrimage festivals: To enter the Temple and offer a sacrifice, a person (and the persons’ sacrifice, of course) had to be in a state of ritual purity. Although ritual purity is dealt with at length in an entire order of the Talmud, this tractate concludes with a limited discussion of it. There are just three chapters in Tractate Chagigah.
This chapter opens with a discussion of who is obligated to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for each of the three annual festivals, concluding that able-bodied adult men are required, though all are welcome. The obligation to rejoice, however, applies to men and women. Men rejoice by consuming the festival peace offering. This offering should be made on the first day of the festival, which is of greater sanctity than the intermediate days. However, should a person be prevented from offering it on the first day, they may bring it later during the week of the festival. This week-long grace period even applies to Shavuot, which is celebrated for only one day in Israel (and two everywhere else).
This chapter opens with a mishnah that states three things should not be taught in large public settings: the laws of forbidden sexual relations, what came before creation and speculation about the divine chariot (meaning, in all likelihood, the appearance of God). All are considered dangerous. The chapter includes stories of teachers and students who transgressed these boundaries and suffered dire consequences, including the famous story of the four who entered the pardes, from which only Rabbi Akiva emerged whole. One of the other four, Elisha ben Abuya, became a heretic and is referred to in rabbinic literature primarily as aher — “the other.” There are several other stories about him in this chapter as well.
This chapter contains additional laws regarding festival offerings. Beit Hillel wins a debate, thereby allowing people to place their hands on festival offerings (despite the fact that placing of hands is considered a form of forbidden labor). Purity concerns are also discussed and we are introduced to the idea of levels — that when an object or person transfers impurity to another object or person the recipient has a different level of impurity. For the sake of making people’s lives manageable, the sages rule that in order to consume non-sacred food and terumah (priestly portions), one may wash one’s hands. But in order to consume sacrificial offerings, full immersion is required to achieve the necessary purity.
In this chapter, the discussion of purity continues. The sages discuss the haver, a Jews who is scrupulous with regard to purity and attempts to maintain a state of ritual purity at all times. The haver’s opposite number is the am ha’aretz, someone who is unscrupulous with regard to matters of purity. While the am ha’aretz was normally not trusted with regard to purity, they were trusted when it came to the Temple and its sacrifices — it was assumed that in this case they were reliably careful. It was also assumed that people living in Jerusalem close to the Temple were more reliable with regard to matters of purity, since they came into regular contact with the Temple. It is made clear that some of these leniencies were declared to ensure peace and harmony among the people during their three seasons of rejoicing.